What should the purpose of a museum be?
According to Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, instead of being about something, museums should be for somebody. In his article about the transformation of American museums, Weil pinpoints two major currents for change that aided in this shift to a visitor centered approach…
The first major current for change according to Weil:
The museum is an instrument for social change!
By viewing the museum as an instrument for social change, as opposed to a repository for collections that never see the light of day, museums are given a new sense of purpose. This new sense of purpose is centered around the idea that education is the primary purpose of a museum. Although the early 20th century concept of a warehouse full of old, dusty, remarkable objects may seem nice in a traditional and safe way, this warehouse doesn’t do much to inspire the wider public. If given the task to make their organizations for somebody, museum professionals can set achievable goals to make their collections and programs work towards the purpose of education.
Speaking of those who work in museums, here are a few necessary skills (as described by Stephen Weil) of the modern super-heros of the museum profession:
- The ability to work directly with members of the community to get a better idea of how to meet their needs.
- Some practical knowledge about collaborating productively with other community organizations.
- An understanding of how to use collections, exhibits, and programs effectively.
- A knowledge and understanding of their audience.
The second major current for change according to Weil:
The non-profit conundrum!
Success in non-profit or not-for-profit museums has traditionally been measured in terms of survival. If the institution wasn’t sinking financially, flotation seemed to be ok. Heck… it even seems to be pretty gosh darn good, considering the amount of time, effort, and money put into museums that is often never recovered. But what if museums were required to demonstrate consistent profitability in the way that businesses are measured? By being required to use their resources with the same efficiency and effectiveness that is seen in the for-profit world, profits accumulated could be put towards bettering the museum and fulfilling the purpose.
Now for a question for readers….
With public education in mind, how can museum organizations assess their effectiveness, and subsequently establish achievable goals for improvement?
Inspiration for this post came from:
Stephen E. Weil’s From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum, Daedalus, America’s Museum, Vol. 128. No 3.
Stephen E. Weil’s Rethinking the Museum, Smithsonian Institution Press. pgs 43-56
John Cotton Dana’s The Gloom of the Museum